Bullshit, lies, itches and flies – the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes

In 2006, Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes from CSIRO calculated you’d need to take 30 photos of a group of 30 people to (almost) ensure that nobody will have their eyes closed. In 2013, Czech, German and Zambian biologists published findings that showed dogs prefer to face magnetic north or south when urinating. Last year, scientists at Flinders University and the University of California at Irvine un-boiled an egg.

Definitely no Nobel Prizes there, but the originality (and outward silliness) of each has earned the scientists behind them an Ig Nobel Prize.

Every year, the publishers of the Annals of Improbable Research awards the prizes to celebrate research that provokes laughter – then thought – whether it is “good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless.”

Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University accepts the 2006 prize in literature. He found conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. Photo: Jeff Dlouhy / Flickr.

This year, the Ig Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to German scientists who showed that if you have an itch on the left side of your body and you look in a mirror, you can relieve it by scratching the same spot on your right side. Swede Fredrik Sjöberg received the prize in literature for “The Fly Trap,” the first of an three-volume autobiographical work on “the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.”

You can read about the prizes going back to 1991 on the Improbable Research website (and you should), but my 2016 favourites are below: deciding whether to trust the answers when you ask liars how much they lie, and a measurement of people’s susceptibility to “vacuous bullshit.”


In research for a paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues presented four groups of people with statements which – though they seemed to convey profound meaning – were just buzzwords randomly assembled into grammatically-correct sentences. These came in the form of fake quotes randomly assembled from the tweets of alternative medicine entrepreneur and quantum physics misappropriator Deepak Chopra and another, similar random phrase generator.

PEACE PRIZE — Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”.

Chopra. Photo: lifescript / Flickr.

The researchers asked them to rate their profoundness on a five-point scale, complete demographic information, answer questions on their religious and paranormal beliefs and complete cognitive tasks and reasoning tests.


The researchers found people were more likely to perceive the randomly-generated bullshit as profound if they were: less reflective, scored lower in cognitive ability tests, hold religious or paranormal beliefs or endorsed complementary and alternative medicine. Pennycook concludes that given the amount of information available to people via information communication technology, people are more likely to encounter bullshit, and a way to measure their susceptibility to it may be a valuable thing. But perhaps even more importantly:

That’s one way to get notice for your work.


…and lies

The biggest liar of them all. Photo: David Greenwald / Flickr.

Teenagers are the most prolific liars, but 18 to 29-year-olds are the best liars.

That’s what the Dutch and American researchers who attempted to map lying across the human lifespan found – if you trust their results. But what earned them the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology was their test to determine how much to trust believe people as they aged.

PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE — Evelyne Debey, Maarten De Schryver, Gordon Logan, Kristina Suchotzki, and Bruno Verschuere, for asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.

The bell curve of truthfulness from young to old had been reflected in a range of previous studies. The researchers started their study of 1005 people by asking each one how much they had lied in the last day.

But how do you know whether to believe them? The researchers, fortunately, also tested how good they were at lying.

They did this by asking the same participants to answer yes or no well-known general knowledge questions, but told them which response to give. The researchers measured the time difference between truthful answers and lies, what is known as a Sheffield lie test. Each age group gave truthful answers faster, but 18 to 29-year-olds had the least hesitation to lie. Children and the elderly lie the least.

You can watch the complete ceremony below.

4 Responses to “Bullshit, lies, itches and flies – the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes”

  1. Tessa Marshall says:

    Sometimes these prizes are (almost) more exciting than the Nobel Prize – the studies may seem silly, but someone must have thought they were valuable enough to fund! You never know where a seemingly ridiculous discovery might be useful.

  2. Stuart says:

    Thanks Kimberley… I think showing the lighter side of science is incredibly valuable – it gives a human side to the many hours of experiments and combing through data, and brings in people who would never be interested otherwise. I ended up reading both articles in full, and the second one would have been a(n even more painful) slog if I hadn’t had my curiosity nudged by the prize.

  3. Kimberley Meyers says:

    This was a fantastic article! It was such an entertaining topic and looks at the funny side of science that we often miss out on.

  4. Browne says:

    Love it. Definitely sharing some of these facts the next time I need to make small talk. Thanks for sharing!